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These days, I seemingly spend far too much time flying around Asia, and one of my hash tags at industry events seems to be #The Phuket Guy. There are far worse things to be called in life, and I'm without a doubt getting off easy. Send in the flip-flops, things might be turning nasty after the sundowners.
Aside from all the campy small talk about living on an island in Thailand, which remains an object of desire for many, often the conversation turns to where the next Phuket will be, or in boom-time talk, the next big Asian resort destination? My mind tends to wander whenever this subject comes around, with glassed-over eyes and silence bringing up the rear.
Where next? Some of the best-known names have to be taken off the table - Bali, Koh Samui, and Boracay, all are famous already. What I need is the almost famous, which may be able to jump the queue like an overanxious speed freak with attention deficit disorder.
Shuffling though the deck of cards names such as Lombok, Palawan, the southern coast of Sri Lanka and Langkawi flip up. Digging deeper, the name Phu Quoc in Vietnam springs up. About an hour's flight south of Ho Chi Minh City, this idyllic island has flirted with broader success for the past few years, but still remains relatively quiet.
Unlike Danang in the middle of the country with its famed China Beach facing the volatile South China Sea, Phu Quoc shares more in common with the islands off Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand. I never quite understood how Danang and Lang Co were able to garner such a large resort development footprint, given the overall lack of tropical sunny days and mismatched winter weather where gray skies and cold greet the European snowbirds.
Phuket has enjoyed decades of core seasonal tourism from the likes of Scandinavians, Europeans, and most recently the Russians, who have been fleeing their iceberg winter wonderlands. Fun in the sun packs charter planes, even if retail therapy has replaced tanning as a core activity.
Airlift in my opinion remains the great leveller for tourism and the fairly new Phu Quoc airport is a game changer. This past winter saw charter flights from Eastern Europe come into play. Vietnam, like Thailand, and unlike Indonesia, allows Russians visa-free travel, which is a key demand driver as the numbers bear out.
While Danang, Nha Tran and Phan Thiet had previously been seeing the emerging markets rise, the new airlift to Phu Quoc has changed the scene. Surprisingly, there are only two internationally affiliated resorts, with La Veranda coming under ACCOR's MGallery umbrella and a pool villa resort managed by the Centara boutique collection.
There are bigger things in store for an island with fewer than 200 keys at the upscale level. The Vinpearl group, who have two other mega-resorts in Danang and Nha Trang, will open a luxury 500-plus room property before year-end. With Miss Vietnam set to be held in Phu Quoc in November, the rush is on to complete the project. Later plans call for more hotel units, residential and retail facilities.
Also in the pipeline is a Crowne Plaza by the InterContinental Hotels Group, and another ACCOR resort by Mercure. Speculation is strong about a new mixed-use project by the Sun Group on the lovely southeastern side of the island, which is one of the most dynamic beach fronts.
From 200 rooms to over 1,000 in a fairly short span will mean the island must look to China and Russia to fill rooms, just as Phuket has so ably done over the past few years. When quick fixes are required, look to the skies for charter planes to be a familiar sight.
As is the case across Asia, developers of hotel assets are also tuning into real estate offerings and Phu Quoc will likely see a flurry of new offerings in the next 12-24 months with brands and independents alike. There is talk on the ground about the island becoming a Special Economic Zone and the possibility of foreigners being allowed to own freehold property. We hear this a lot throughout the region, in every nook and cranny, so best to wait and see on this one.
On a whole, Vietnam has yet to live up to its tourism promise over the past two decades and the visa issue for most nationalities remains a deterrent. Yet, if you were a betting person, Phu Quoc has strong destination DNA - favorable weather for the European traveller, a good capacity airport, lovely beaches and the start of some impressive hotel offerings.
At the end of the day, there is no place exactly like Phuket, but on the other hand, there is life outside the island as well, with untapped potential in many cases to evolve into their own unique paradise success stories.